Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Recognition Part 3: History of Recognition Theory

Welcome to the insert philosophy here podcast. Inserting the principles of philosophy into real life.

Welcome to part three of my series of podcasts on the concept of recognition, a very important concept in philosophy. In this podcast, I want to talk as promised about some of the history of the concept of recognition, and how recognition of our fellow human beings is essential to justice itself.

Recognition is something that is, it’s not something that anyone invented. It is something that is at the very center of the fabric of society. And philosophers have only relatively recently begun talking about the importance of recognition in social justice. Still not enough people in my opinion, including philosophers, are aware of this important social reality.

Recognition involves the attitudes and practices by which we approve and affirm each other. We recognize another as a human being deserving of consideration as a good person or as a friend. We also recognize misbehavior and appropriately disapprove of it. How we function socially is shaped by norms of behavior, and we use those norms to recognize others and their behaviors. Most importantly, recognition is the core of human rights. There is no justice without the recognition that someone deserves justice.

Rousseau and the First Discussions of Recognition

So, I’m going to talk about three philosophers who in history have helped develop the understanding of the concept of recognition. The first was the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who lived in the 1700s. He was a radical social philosopher and fierce critic of social conventions. The quick version of Rousseau’s philosophy is summed up in his book The Social Contract.

Man is Born Free and everywhere is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and so remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer. But the social order is a sacred right, which is the basis of all other rights. Nevertheless, this right does not come from nature, and must therefore be founded on conventions.

That’s from Rousseau’s book. The Social Contract part one, chapter one.

By the social order, Rousseau meant the class structure of society, and the many related expectations of how people should behave. France was a hierarchical society in Rousseau’s time: a king, an aristocracy, and the common people. Everyone knew their place in the hierarchy because social recognition norms taught people what was expected from them and what to expect from others.

That set of social relations was what made France a civilized society, but Rousseau saw civilized society as a prison. Its structure of social norms chained people, restricting their true expression. Rousseau complained that social norms encouraged people to obsessively concentrate on the approval of others to maintain their social status.

This social pressure created in people the artificial state of amour-propre. Rousseau picked up the concept of amour-propre, literally “self-love,” from the French moralist François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld.

François, a contemporary of Descartes, was also raised on the theory of letters, the ancient sources, and Francois was familiar with Augustine, who had condemned this love of self, amour de soi, as the vice of making oneself more important than God. Francois added to Augustine’s amour de soi the idea that motivated by love of self, people seek the approval of others. We are in fact so desirous of the approval of others that we put up a public front to cast ourselves in a flattering light, highlighting our positives and hiding our negatives in order to win other people’s approval.

Being familiar with the French Royal Court, he was, after all, a Duke, François saw how courtiers would go to great lengths to gain prestige and status. This pursuit, despite being motivated by self-interest, actually causes people to forget their true nature and misjudge their own behaviors. François wrote that we are so used to disguising ourselves from others that we end up disguising ourselves from ourselves. This desire for esteem that François terms, amour-propre, helps him explain why we behave as we do and why we are blind to why we behave as we do.

Rousseau took the concept further and defined amour-propre as approval and esteem that must come from others. This, he argued was not natural self-love or amour de soi, which Rousseau, in sharp contrast to Augustine, saw as positive. Rousseau claimed that amour-propre was an artificial creation of civilization that caused individuals to compare themselves with one another to gain social status. He claimed that amour de soi was compatible with happiness, but that amour-propre corrupted individuals and led to misery and vice.

Rousseau saw amour de soi as difficult, if not impossible, within civilized society, which is dominated by the pressure to conform to social norms. So, in essence, what Rousseau is saying in his condemnation of society is that the recognition norms that demand us to act in terms of amour-propre prevent us from acting according to our true nature, which equates with amour de soi.

Hegel and Recognition

Move ahead a few years and to a different country. German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is best known for his idealist system of social philosophy. But he also developed the concept of recognition into a formal philosophical tool.

Hegel uses a German word anerkennung that does not have an exact match in English but is translated as recognition.” In recognition in English, recognition has two meanings to identify something such as. I recognize that object is a tree which is erkennen in German, but also to acknowledge value and respect something. I recognize you as a student, or I recognize you as a good person, or I recognize you as a human being and treat you as a human being deserves to be treated, which is anerkennung in German.

It is this latter definition to respect and value something that is the sense that Hegel means and uses. Hegel realized that recognition is crucial in social life. You are defined by your relations with others to have successful healthy relations with others you need the acknowledgement and approval of others. Hegel realized that we are all dependent on recognition from other people.

Think about any label or idea by which you can identify yourself. Friend, student, citizen and so on. You cannot meaningfully be that, any of those things, unless others acknowledge you as that. Therefore, you are dependent on them for your identity. You are not a friend unless someone recognizes you as a friend. You cannot say, “I am a student at State University.” unless the university recognizes you as such. You are not a citizen of a country unless that country legally recognizes you as one.

Every single relation you have, every social identity you have has a similar requirement. This includes even simple things like being a nice person or being attractive. You are not such unless others think you are. That is why we stress out so much about how we appear to others. The positive side of recognition is that when we receive it, we become part of a community.

The negative side of recognition is that because people need it, they compete for it. Rousseau discussed how people become obsessed with the need for approval and recognition from others. This obsession drives them to act according to how society tells them to act, and people end up being untrue to themselves in order to curry favor with others.

Hegel doesn’t share Rousseau’s anti society position. Hegel sees social norms as positives. We are members of a society, and that society has a system of social norms that inform people how to act and how to treat others. When we act in accordance with those norms, we receive recognition from others, including social authority.

Hegel believed that recognition is essential for providing the conditions under which individual people can form an identity. Hegel said that an individual develops as a person through the guidance of recognition norms. Through our actions, some successful, some not so, we receive approval and disapproval, and we learn how to behave and be a part of our society. Recognition also gives us social roles and responsibilities by which we come to self-realization of who we are as a passionate individual and member of our society.

Hegel says that recognition is the means by which we actualize our various freedoms through becoming a good member of our social community and of society as a whole. Hegel does acknowledge that recognition can be a negative burden. His position is that recognition is more of a problem in interpersonal relations. Because we are defined by others and need recognition from them to know how we are and thus become autonomous.

Hegel thought that we will fight against another person to affirm our own freedom by proving that our status is of more importance than the other person’s. We are trying to express our autonomy through elevating ourselves over another. But this conflict cannot achieve the mutual recognition that is essential to our autonomy. Remember, we depend on others for our own identity, and for our acceptance in society, and that recognition has to be mutual. That I recognize you as someone that has enough social authority to make a proper judgment on me as being a friend, a student, a citizen, et cetera. Mutual recognition is essential to our own autonomy. We are defined by how we are perceived.

Hegel’s brutal example of this is the master-slave relation, which needs to be interpreted more as an analogy than as a literal state. Someone is a master only if a slave acknowledges that mastery. So, Hegel says, the master is actually dependent on the slave for his own autonomous identity. This creates a conflict that neither person can ever win. In Hegel’s harsh assessment, the conflict ends only when one of them dies. The master-slave analogy illustrates that the irony of freedom is that we cannot be free except in terms of our relations with others and our place in a society.

Honneth and Recognition

The theory of recognition based on Hegel’s ideas became a topic in social philosophy in the late 2000s. Thanks to Axel Honneth. Honneth is another German philosopher still alive today, still working today. He takes on the mission of critiquing society to bring about human emancipation from injustice. His distinctive approach to critical theory is to replace Marxism as the center of the critical project with Hegel’s theory of recognition. This enables Honneth to talk about how social institutions affect people positively and negatively, and what causes people to demand justice. Honneth’s hypothesis is that all social integration depends on reliable forms of mutual recognition.

There are two keys to Honneth’s conception of recognition. The first is that individuals are socialized into a life world of recognition norms that prescribe how we should respond to people’s behaviors. Social norms inform us about what behaviors are worthy of praise or censure in others, and in ourselves. They tell us what is expected of us, from moral behavior to social niceties, creating shared communal bonds.

The second is that receiving recognition on the basis of these norms enables an individual to develop a positive “relation-to-self”; his or her sense of place in society; and, most importantly, his or her autonomy to be able to determine and realize his or her own desires and intentions freely. Thus, individuals desire and need to both receive and give recognition to achieve their goals in society. When we receive recognition and enter into relations of mutual recognition with others, we develop an identity.

Honneth takes the usual definitions of injustice as violations of laws or rights and expands it to the idea that people experience moral injuries when recognition is lacking, or an individual is actively misrecognized. In his 2007 book, Disrespect, he says that Misrecognition is an active withholding of recognition, such as denying rights or refusing social inclusion.

Exclusion, insult, and degradation violate and damage one’s self confidence, their self-respect, and self-esteem. These injuries to one’s integrity, honor or dignity Honneth, argues, are the core of the experience of injustice. People learn what justice is through processes of socialization. They come to expect the society will recognize them in accordance with social recognition norms of just treatment.

When instead they receive misrecognition, people experience the resulting disappointment as violence to their sense of identity. Honneth view of justice extends beyond capitalist exploitation, oppressive laws, or unequal distribution of resources to receiving exclusion, insult or degradation.

In his 2003 book, The Struggle of Recognition, the Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, Honneth states that most social movements for justice are in fact struggles for recognition. Even social conflicts over resources or political power are at their heart struggles based on the concern that moral values are not being reflected in actual recognition relations. Groups denied rights or integrity seek to reestablish relations of mutual recognition.

We can see a recent example of Honneth’s idea in the Black Lives Matter movement. Yes, this group is struggling for legal rights, but at the heart of their movement is the struggle for recognition that they are human beings who deserve to be treated according to the moral values that society claims it believes in but is not fully extending to Black people.

That denial of recognition of Black people is what Honneth calls a pathology of reason. It should be obvious that blacks are people with the same rights as other people. However, society has distorted people’s ability to reason about moral relations and norms, leading to a failure to identify misrecognition.

When individuals experience misrecognition Honneth says their suffering motivates them to take action. Their damaged self-esteem and relation to self can be repaired only by recognition. They therefore join an existing political movement that is struggling for recognition. Honneth also sees large scale political movements as necessary to motivate an individual to take on a struggle for recognition.

Now this position leaves him unable to explain how such movements ever get started. If you can only struggle for recognition within an existing political movement, then how does it ever get off the ground? But that’s my pet peeve about Honneth theory.
But his theory also can’t explain how a person damaged by missed recognition could manage to resolve the struggle for recognition, or why many people who suffer from recognition don’t enter into a struggle for recognition. Again, another pet peeve of mine about honest theory. I wrote a book about that, but that’s another story.

Also, Honneth’s reliance on a Hegelian view of society as merely being institutional spheres of family, civil society, and the state leave him unable to recognize the myriad ways that individuals respond to experiences of misrecognition outside of institutional paths. Despite the shortcomings of Honneth’s version of recognition theory, he has established recognition as a social reality that political philosophers need to address. A great deal more work needs to be done on recognition in order for us to truly understand how deeply entwined it is within society, and to use this realization of our dependence on mutual recognition to work for greater social justice for everyone.


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